Dhirubhai - The Man - Finest Textile Mill

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Finest Textile Mill

By January, 1967, Naroda factory began producing fine quality fabric, about 5,000 meters a day. Then it hit a roadblock. The fabric was fine and the prices offered were attractive. Yet nobody in the wholesale markets of Ahmedabad and Mumbai was ready to touch Reliance cloth. The wholesalers stonewalled Reliance at the instance of established big mill owners who hated to see an upstart trying to enter their exclusive club. They had many more knitting machines than Reliance. No wholesaler could afford to anger or annoy them. So they shunned all Reliance material. For four months bales of newly rolled out fabric kept piling up in the Reliance warehouse.

The big players in the market thought seeing no way he could beat them at the game, Dhirubhai would succumb, pack up and leave them in peace. However, Dhirubhai was not one to give up a fight once started. "We can't beat them but we can bypass them," he told his people, "Let us go directly to retailers. There is no way they can stop us from selling directly to the retailers." In the next few days Dhirubhai's staff fanned out all over the big cities, piling bales of Reliance fabric at the retailers' counters without asking for any receipt or advance payment, no, not even seeking a promise of payment in future.

In Mumbai, Dhirubhai himself did what he told others to do. He loaded the boot of his old, Austin car at his Altamount Road flat with bales of Reliance material and drove about the city the whole day long from retailer to retailer, hawking his own goods. "Who can sell my material better than myself I thought," said Dhirubhai, "If I can sell it, so can they, that is, my people on the road; if I can't, then can't either. So, I myself took to the road."

(Just across the road from where Dhirubhai lived, there was a young man of about the same age as he whose thoughts ran the same way. He also was facing a similar wholesalers' blockade as Dhirubhai. He was then living on Peddar Road and his name was Rajneesh, Acharya Rajneesh, the Osho of the later years. His predicament was no different from Dhirubhai's. Books wholesaler had stonewalled him as cloth wholesalers had Dhirubhai. Rajneesh also was loading his newly printed books in the boot of his baby Austin car and going about the city piling them at the books retailer counters on similar terms as Dhirubhai was offering to the retail cloth merchants.

Dhirubhai and Rajneesh's cars must have passed by each other many a times during those days but, as Dhirubhai said, "I had no time then for that sort of spiritual stuff. I was in a different universe and, anyway, I had more urgent work to do. But how happy it is to know that a mahapurush like Rajneesh was then facing a similar obstacle as I was and tackling the same way as I.")

On reaching a retailer's shop, Dhirubhai would place his visiting card on the counter and introduce himself thus, "My name is Dhirubhai Ambani. I am a sadakchhap (a man from the streets) but I want to be big one day. I want you to grow with me, though at the moment I have nothing big to offer you. My brothers, some friends and I have just set up a factory at Naroda. We make this knitted fabric there. The wholesalers are boycotting our material for fear of the big mill owners. I offer this material to you. I don't want any money. You sell it. If you make money by selling our material, give me whatever and whenever you want to. Now, will you not offer me a cup of tea before I go?"

No cloth merchant had ever in his life seen a young man get out of a car with a pile of bales of cloth on his shoulders and introduce himself like that. They had seen many smart, amiable, outgoing salesmen but never anybody so gutsy, so daring, so open and so frank as I. They were damn impressed but would be a little wary too. Many of them doubted my bona fides. They thought that I was bluffing them; that, may be I was trying to pass off stolen goods to them. On such occasions I would tell them to call up my office or factory and check my word for themselves."

The gambit worked and worked well. Reliance cut the wholesalers out of the deal, selling directly to retailers. In a few weeks ales began picking. No retailer had ever been offered such lavish terms. Slowly and steadily Reliance material began moving in the market without any promotion, publicity or advertising. In the meantime the family had named the Reliance fabric "Vimal" meaning "pure". Vimal also happened to be the name of the first born son of the eldest of the three Ambani brothers.

As Vimal sales picked and they made good money dealing in it, many retailers in different cities stopped selling other brands. "We'll sell only Vimal, Dhirubhai," they would tell him when he visited their shops. Slowly the "Only Vimal" slogan began to emerge, though it was still some years away from the phrase being adopted as the company motto for Reliance's exclusive "Only Vimal" showrooms.

As Reliance prospered, Dhirubhai kept ploughing profits back into Naroda, adding new machines and new in house facilities year after. The Reliance team also expanded. Most of the newcomers were young men from Aden. Others were Dhirubhai's school friends or relatives, or friends and relatives of his friends and relatives which made Reliance sort of a big, joint family.

While most were raw hands, as had been Dhirubhai's early colleagues, many newcomers on the team were drawn from established big textile and other mills and offices. They also soon became part of the Reliance flock as Dhirubhai fired them with his zeal, bonhomie and his indomitable spirit of conquering the world. Dhirubhai, his two brothers and their nephew, Rasikbhai Meswani, who had joined them during their yarn days, formed the core team.

"The four of them made a deadly combination," said one of the old hands from Naroda, "They were a very raw, very high voltage and a very high strung but a very low profile people. They worked hard like hell, talked like army generals in the midst of a battlefield, never bothered about creature comforts, took quick decisions, and acted so swift that by the time you said 'okay, I'll do it,' they had done it. There was never a chance of their rivals or competitors catching them napping because they just didn't nap or let anybody around and about them nap either."

"They were never content or satisfied with whatever, good, bad or better, had been done or attained yesterday or the day before. They only talked about what new or better things could be done the day, month or year next. With their feet firmly on the ground, they looked at the stars and were determined to grab them. That was the spirit they had.

And, the man who kept fuelling this spirit and energizing them and others down the line like an inexhaustible dynamo was Dhirubhai. His ambition was insatiable. He seemed to want to conquer not just the world but the entire universe. Very Early in his Naroda days, he began saying, "Whatever we do, we must be the best, the number one. I hate to be number two. I hate to be the next best. I must be the best." It is this spirit of his to be the best of all in everything that inspired his Naroda and Bombay team to raise Vimal to be the finest, best selling fashion fabric of its times.

Recalling how Dhirubhai fired the zeal of his young team members, an early Naroda groupie said, "Before going to Germany for training during early Naroda days, I went to meet Dhirubhai at the Dhobi Talao office. 'Do you know Tata and Birla?' he asked.

"Yes," I said, "I have heard of them, though I have never seen or met them."

Woh kaun log hain (Who are they)?" he asked.

"They are the two biggest industrialists in India," I replied, not knowing what he had in mind next.

"Well, you are going to Germany for training," he said, now somewhat sombre, "So all the while you are there, keep repeating to yourself that one day we have to be bigger than Tata and Birla. But we can be bigger than them only if we master our machines. Just don't limit yourself to handling the Liba machines. Go with an open mind. Keep your eyes open. Demand to see everything, look into everything, and learn everything. Make note of all that they are doing, planning, developing.

"They will not tell you all by themselves. You will need to ask them, needle them, and pester them. Unki jaan kha jaao (be after their life). What you learn will depend on what questions you ask. Don't be with them just the scheduled six hours of the day. Stay there in the mill 24 hours. If necessary, sleep there. Most important: make friends while you are there. We need to have friends everywhere, if we have to grow big."

"It was his talk like this that made us mad for success, mad to be the best, to be number one. We felt elevated. We had a physical sensation of being uplifted in the air. He was a tremendous leader, the sort who transforms his men from clay into steel. His was an all- consuming passion, an overarching ambition. And, of all his teammates, including his brothers, no one shared his passion more or comprehended his ambition better than his young nephew, Rasikbhai Meswani, who had joined him after passing out of school a few years before the Naroda factory was started. Apart from being his nephew, Rasikbhai was also Dhirubhai's great chum. "We knew each other's pulse, as they say in India," said Dhirubhai," We were on the same wavelength. I did not need to use words to communicate with him, nor he to me. We could see through each other's mind. At any time, he could guess, rather sense, what I wanted to be done, how and when. The best part of it was that he didn't just guess things, he also acted swiftly. I put him into marketing, especially, marketing of our import entitlement yarn, and he did miracles there."

Reliance grew at a fast pace. Within four or five years of starting production, the number of warp knitting machines rose to about 20 in addition to a dozen warping machines. One German Muller raising machine was installed to give the fabric a buff effect weight, and make it smooth and soft to touch. Nine texturising machines, two circular knitting machines, four weaving looms and one screen printing machine were added just within a year. By 1972-73, the number of weaving looms rose to 154 even as ever new knitting machines kept being added to the old ones. That year started an in-house design center, the best-equipped and the largest in India.

In 1975, a World Bank team visited 24 leading textile mills in India. The team estimated the Reliance mill to be the best in the country. "Judged in relation to developed country standards," said the team in its report to the Bank, "Only one mill, Reliance, could be described as excellent." A year letter, in 1976 started a major overhaul, upgradation and expansion of all plant operations.

Yet again, in 1980 the mill was expanded, renewed and renovated with installation of 148 Sulzer weaving machines, 16 Sourer weaving machines, a large men's wear processing house, 16 Scragg texturising machines (the first POY texturising machines in India), and a large worsted spinning Sulzer processing plant. Then, in 1983, Dhirubhai's second son, Anil Ambani, returned home after completing his MBA from the Wharton School, Pennsylvania, USA.

He joined Reliance as co-chief executive officer at Naroda just when yet another major expansion plan was in the final stages. He got involved in the new initiative from his very first day at Naroda, though the main task Dhirubhai had assigned to him at that time was marketing. Then, between 1984 and 1996, the entire face of the Naroda mill changed with installation of 280 totally computerized water jet looms, 72 Sulzer looms, 24 motif designing Jacquard looms, 48 Dornier looms, and numerous other buffing, raising, piling machines were installed. Naroda also had the first, most modern effluent treatment plant of the country as also a captive mw power plant.

Naroda now became the grandest composite mill in the country where spinning, texturising, dyeing, heat setting, designing, printing, knitting, weaving, that is, everything for converting raw yarn into finished bales of fabric ready for the retail shops was done at one site. And, Reliance was now making not only saris and suiting but also all sorts of highest quality material ranging from camel wool suits to world class furnishing fabrics.